The Politics of the Global Commons

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Public attention has recently turned to the global nature of many environmental problems, such as global climate change, the transmigration of pollution, the rapid loss of biodiversity, and the collapse of ocean fisheries. To the extent that such problems are real, as opposed to media hype, they may require international cooperation for their solution. The old environmental adage "Think Globally, Act Locally," is being transformed into a political platform of "Think Globally, Mandate Internationally." The Montreal Accords, the U.N. Summit on the Environment, and the "green" side-agreements to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are evidence that environmental concerns shape international treaties.

The Problems of International Environmental Commons. Most global environmental problems are "commons" problems. Commons problems arise when land or other resources have no owners or are "owned" in common. If property rights do not exist or are somehow difficult to establish, enforce or transfer, then the land or other resource has no owner and therefore it has no protector of defender. Where resources are common property self-interested behavior will often lead to environmental degradation. For example, if grazing land is owned in common, each herder will have an incentive to overgraze. Each herder receives all the benefits but bears only a fraction of the costs of each additional animal that he adds to the commons.

Sometimes commons problems can be solved by making rights and responsibilities explicit. For example, when a commons is privatized the owners have a personal interest in protecting it from degradation because they will realize the full benefits of conservation and bear the full costs of waste.

Sometimes, however, property ownership is not feasible; for example, no one owns the oceans or migratory marine life, thus there are no stewards to object to ocean dumping or overfishing and decisions about marine resources are necessarily collective.

People naturally tend to turn to government to solve these commons problems. But commons problems are inherently difficult to solve for several reasons. The political process is itself a commons in which social activists, interest groups politicians and voters frequently do not bear the full costs of bad policies or reap the full benefits of good ones. Some people benefit from the status quo and will fight change. Others claim their attempts to gain personal advantages are for the "common good." In addition, reasonable, well-meaning people will disagree on goals and how best to attain them. The difficulty only increases when the issue is a global environmental problem.

The Politics of the Global Commons. Even when the source or effects of environmental problems are global, the politics of solving the problems are local. Herein lies the difficulty with solving international common's problems: 1) government's differ in their environmental priorities and abilities to effectively deal with environmental problems. Political history and economic conditions also influence the willingness of countries to work cooperatively. Most importantly, less developed, generally Southern, countries are often suspicious of entreaties by developed, generally northern, countries for increased environmental protection of the "world's" environment.

On the one hand, most developed countries have comprehensive environmental infrastructures that people take for granted. For example, most North Americans and Western Europeans have safe-drinking water, sewage treatment and adequate daily nutrition. Accordingly, their concerns focus on more less immediate, indirect types of environmental harms like global climate change or the loss of biodiversity. On the other hand, the majority of Africans, Asians, and South Americans and many Eastern Europeans do not have even basic environmental goods like safe drinking water. They don't have the luxury of worrying about possible environmental harms in a relatively distant future; basic health and nutrition needs are of more immediate concern.

Studies have shown that the wealthier a society is the more it spends on the environmental protection. The opposite is also true. Absent international pressure, poorer countries usually spend relatively little on environmental protection. People living under the gun -- scrambling to find their next meal or heat their homes, rarely consider the global effect of their actions. This tendency to focus on the immediate and the local may be unfortunate, but it is natural. Thus, for example, while the world bemoans the global decline of coral reefs, the tropical forests of the ocean, coastal villagers in the Philippines undermine the long-term sustainability of their fisheries by dynamiting or pumping arsenic into the reefs. They gain food today at the expense of future generations' abilities to use the resource for food, medicine or enjoyment.

Environmental advocacy organizations as well as environmentally concerned political leaders recognize the resource limitations facing less developed countries. In response, they have variously offered public and private funds, expertise and other resources to deal with the difficult environmental problems facing the developing world (especially for those problems with global repercussions). Usually the aid is of the type or is offered on the condition that it be used to solve the problems that advocates are most concerned about, using technology or institutions of which they approve.

This leads to conflict, since the problems that aid advocates are worried about differ from the problems that citizens in the developing countries feel are most pressing. This conflict is exacerbated by the history of colonialism during which wealthy colonizers treated colonized countries as playgrounds, nature preserves and dependent vassal states. Later many of these former colonies became pawns of the developed world in the cold-war. In light of this history, talk of developing countries' obligations to preserve the "world's" tropical forests or the biodiversity heritage of "earth's citizens" seems at best paternalistic and at worst self-serving.

Developing nations mistrust of the environmental initiatives of developed nations was visible at the December 1996 WTO summit in Singapore. The developing world drew a line in the sand rejecting the attempt to link trade and environmental issues. Poorer countries see such attempts as either "eco-colonialism' or creeping "green protectionism."

Eco-colonialism or eco-imperialism occurs when the environmental values of the developed world prevail in trade accords with developing countries. For instance, industrialized countries signed the Montreal Accord banning the manufacture and regulating trade in chloroflorocarbons (CFCs) which purportedly deplete atmospheric ozone. The ban was made binding even on non-consenting countries via threats of trade sanctions and loss of aid. Before the ban the developing world saw cheap, non-toxic CFC refrigerants as their foremost hope to prevent the spoilage of food and medicine which cost thousands of lives and untold misery in less developed countries each year. The Montreal Accord allowed industrialized countries to impose their concerns regarding the disputed potential thinning of atmospheric ozone on developing countries, overriding their substantial and immediate health concerns.

Green protectionism exist when trade barriers are erected under the guise of environmental protection but in reality merely protect domestic industries from foreign competition particularly from developing countries with lower cost resources. For instance, the U.S. imposed a higher tax on foreign oil than on domestic oil. It justified this action as an environmental measure to fund hazardous waste site cleanups under the Superfund law. The European Community, Canada and Mexico challenged the tax under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which ruled against the U.S. GATT found that the action was a trade barrier intended to reduce imports of foreign oil with little or no nexus to environmental cleanup.

Most developing countries are in agreement with American businesses view that the World Trade Organization has one specific mission: to liberalize trade by reducing trade barriers. They see multilateral "green" accords that make trade liberalization depend on their implementation of international environmental standards or the creation of environmental regulatory bureaucracies as barriers to free trade and the prosperity that it makes possible. Green side accords usually impose the environmental standards of the country with the higher standards (usually the more developed country) on the country with the lower standards (usually the less developed country). Less developed countries resent the infringement of their sovereignty and the loss competitive advantage they might have due to lower standards.

Where Are All of the Fish Going. Commercial fishing is a $70 billion per year industry worldwide. Despite the value of the world's fish stocks, ocean fisheries are in decline, with the result that "fish wars" are breaking out all over - wars similar to the range wars fought in the American west more than a century ago, and for the same reason.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization almost 70 percent of the world's marine fish stocks are fully fished, over fished, depleted or modestly recovering. At the same time fishing technology is increasing the number and range of the world's fishing fleet, leading to increasing conflict on the high seas. Recently two Spanish fishermen were injured when Portuguese patrol boats fired upon the Spanish vessels to force them to drop their nets and flee back into Spanish waters. In another clash, Vietnamese maritime authorities shot three Taiwanese fishermen to death. Thailand was in another fishing dispute last year when Thai authorities allegedly killed three Burmese fishermen in the Andaman Sea, supposedly by . This incident led Burma to close its only open border checkpoint between the two nations and demand millions of dollars in compensation.

Why is gunpowder joining fish as an increasingly common smell on the high seas? Simply put, the ocean's fisheries are a classic example of the commons problem. Nations have little incentive to conserve or enhance their own fish stock since foreign fishing fleets will reap much of the benefits. Fisheries are ruled by the iron law of capture: the value of the fish stocks can only be gained by exploitation and use. So rather than invest in conservation, fishing fleets invest in more effective technologies to capture fish and escape detection when fishing illegally. Subsidies serve to encourage inefficient fishers to stay in a business whose bedrock resource is failing.

Efforts to solve the problem through the "Law of the Seas Treaty" have been spectacularly unsuccessful so far. The 1982 version of the treaty attempted to encourage conservation by extending coastal nation's jurisdiction over the oceans up to 200 miles offshore in exclusive economic zones. Unfortunately for both the fisheries and the fishing fleets, some of the most productive fishing grounds exist in gaps between these zones.

Representatives of more than sixty coastal nations signed an updated version of the treaty in 1986 meant to fix the gaps and provide for unified management of migratory fish stocks. The new treaty goes into effect when 30 nations ratify it, but only 7 have so far done so. Local politics is overruling ecological common sense. The same governments that agreed to the wording of the treaty now cite studies that show the adverse economic consequences of the treaty on their fishing fleets to avoid ratifying the treaty. Meanwhile it is business as usual on the high seas.

The Politics of Global Climate Change. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil sponsored by the United Nations, more than 100 nations signed a treaty that established voluntary goals for returning to 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2000. It was argued that since developed countries (i.e., the United States, various European and Asian countries) had caused most of the greenhouse gas increase they should make cuts first. Voluntary action is not working. Therefore, there is a push for a new international treaty with enforceable goals.

At a 1996 U.N. conference on climate change in Geneva, Switzerland the Clinton administration committed the U.S. to drawing up legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions by the 1997 meeting of the signatories to the original U.N. treaty. In spite of the fact that several nations - including most middle eastern countries - rejected this proposal, most developed and developing nations voiced their commitment to it.

Ground-level measurements of temperature indicate that Earth has warmed between 0.3 and 0.6 degrees Celsius in the last century. In addition, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), a primary greenhouse gas, has increased by approximately 25 percent in the last century and a half.

This is where the facts end and the controversial theory begins. Critics of global warming theory point out that the computer models used to predict global warming do not accurately reflect either past or current climatic conditions so it would be foolish to depend on their predictions of future climate change. Also, there is little evidence that increased CO2 has played more than a small part in this century's temperature increase. Most of the warming occurred before the 1940s when automobiles - which produce most human-caused CO2 emissions - came into widespread use. And satellite data, the most reliable climate evidence that we have, shows no evidence of warming over the past 17 years.

Proposals for reducing CO2 emissions in the U.S. have included taxes on fossil fuels and energy consumption, higher fuel-economy standards for cars and subsidized production of renewable energy. Meeting the newly proposed goal of cutting emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels would reduce U.S. gross domestic product by $200 billion annually. A DRI/McGraw Hill study projects that just meeting the original goals set in Rio, over the next 14 years more than 500,000 Americans annually would lose their jobs. An exhaustive study by Charles Rivers and Associates of 80 nations concluded that the proposed treaty would devastate to developed nations and have an adverse impact on developing nations in the short-term. However, the restrictions would be very beneficial over the long haul to nations that had not participated in climate agreements, especially China, India, Brazil and Mexico.

An agreement signed in 1995 in Berlin ensures that even if global warming is occurring, the proposed treaty would do little or nothing to counter act its effects. The "Berlin Mandate, " signed by the U.S. and other developed countries stipulates that new climate change commitments will apply only to developed countries. At the time a Chinese diplomat said that for the purposes of climate change treaties, China would always be considered a developing country.

According to the International Energy Agency, up to 85 percent of the projected increase in CO2 emissions will come from exempt countries and regions like China, India and South Korea. In fact, if developed countries unilaterally stopped all their greenhouse gas emissions immediately, total greenhouse gas emissions would continue to rise. The U.N. estimates that exempt countries will contribute 76 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions within the next 50 years. By 2025, China alone will emit more carbon dioxide than the current combined total of the United States, Japan and Canada. Thus, while developed countries would suffer serious economic dislocations, the global environment would not improve.

Admitting that it was politically impossible to gain Senate ratification of such a treaty the U.S. recently modified its proposals. At the December 1996 negotiating session in Geneva, the U.S. called for meeting long-term reduction goals using an international emissions trading scheme that includes developing countries - thus rejecting taxes and internationally coordinated economic measures.

Under this proposal both developed and developing nations would share the burden of emissions reductions. Under this complicated scheme each country would be granted emissions credits which they could use, trade or sale to other countries. This flexible mechanism should produce greenhouse gas emissions at a lower social cost than taxing or technology transfer proposals. Efficient firms would sell excess emission credits to less efficient firms. Inefficient firms that cannot afford to purchase more credits would go out of business causing overall emissions to decrease.

However, politics overwhelmed fear of global climate change and the U.S. proposals were rebuffed. Small island nations have called for even more drastic near term greenhouse gas emission reductions. Western environmentalists and developing countries see the U.S. plan as a way of backing out of the Berlin Mandate and putting off hard choices until later. They want the industrialized countries to keep their previous commitments to make near term-reductions by the years 2010 and 2020 and transfer clean technologies before developing countries must act.

Developing countries rejected the proposed scheme because it would likely require that they remain undeveloped. While developing countries have comparative advantages in labor and capital intensive industries, they only have outdated, polluting technologies. The developed world has cleaner technologies: their share of greenhouse gas emissions as a percentage of world output has been steadily declining as a result of increasingly efficient technology. They also have greater wealth due to the relative stability of their governments and property rights regimes which aided earlier industrialization. As the developed world sees it, efficient industries in the developed world would be able to keep emissions low, and inefficient industries will have the wealth to purchase emission credits from the developing world. Their fear is that the same forces that make the short-term destruction of environmental amenities like the coral reefs and the rainforests rational will lead industries and people in the developing world to trade off future development and long-term wealth creation for short-term survival - while business in the developed world continues as usual

The politics of global warming is a mirror of many of the conflicts over the global commons. To citizens in less developed countries, citizens of the developed world, who have already developed a large percentage of their natural resources and attained a relatively high degree of wealth are calling of the developing world to accept a lower standard of living. Environmentalists in the north want a wilderness playground or a sanctuary where "nature" remains undefiled. Scientists want a laboratory where relatively undisturbed ecosystems can be studied and "biodiversity" thrives. Industries want a source for future agricultural and pharmaceutical discoveries. And governments in prosperous countries want to placate their citizens who want environmental protection. Meanwhile, the citizens in less developed countries want healthier, wealthier, longer lives. They want the relative luxury of safe-drinking water, indoor plumbing, a stable supply of energy and food security - but all of these things require development.

What the outcome of these conflicts of interest will be is anybody's guess. What is clear is that without some kind of solution, the human "eco" (from the Greek oikos meaning house) will be a poorer place whether measured economically or ecologically.